Properties of Blood, Chapter I, K

Doing the Lord’s Work
Philosophically, Augustine was a Platonist and, like Plato and Thomas More (a Renaissance Neoplatonist), he was inclined to extremes in his speculations on human moral and social perfectibility. While I agree entirely that the great philosophical tradition is that of Plat and Aristotle, there are subjects o which one or the other great master may be a more useful guide. Idealists, it sometimes seems, are too often in a rush to erect the lofty and towering kingdom of God on earth, even before they have properly surveyed the ground or laid the foundations. The results of secular projects are often disastrous.

Utopian projects run aground on a fundamental principle enunciated by Cicero: The family is foundation of the city (principium urbis) the seed-bed of the commonwealth (seminarium rei publicae).” Cicero’s declaration—or rather quotation from a Greek philosopher--has been repeated so often that it has suffered the fate of too many familiar truths--including the truths of the Gospels: No one takes the trouble to wonder what it means. Taken literally, Cicero’s seed-bed metaphor assumes the family is the network of relationships in which citizens are reared and the source from which all civil institutions derive their legitimacy and strength. The authenticity and health of any political system, therefore, would depend directly upon the vigor of the families that comprise it: Undermine the family, and you destroy society.

This was not an eccentric opinion. For Christians and Jews, the story of Adam and Eve has been a vivid confirmation of the family’s status as a divinely established institution that stands at the beginning of human history, and political thinkers from Cicero to St. Thomas and even down to the 17th century were influenced by Aristotle’s account of social evolution (in the first book of The Politics) as an unfolding process that begins with the married couple and culminates in the commonwealth.

Even if Cicero’s statement were false, political dreamers and social revolutionaries have written and acted as if it is true, so true that they believe all their projects would run aground on the rock of the traditional family. With only a few minor exceptions, every political theory and social experiment of the past three hundred years has predicated itself on either the elimination of the family or on a drastic reduction of its traditional autonomy. Plato himself understood very well that his own utopian plans for a society based upon competitive excellence and social stability could never be realized so long as men and women forged exclusive marital bonds and parents had the authority to rear their own children.
But Plato, although his apparent aversion to the family is matched by few ancient philosophers (apart from Epicurus), is hardly an isolated case. The family’s enemies are legion among political theorists. Many of them have attacked the historicity of the institution, offering their own substitutes for the accounts in Genesis and Aristotle’s Politics. Marx and Engels regarded the family not as a natural institution but as the historical invention of the same patriarchal males who invented private property and the state; Freud de-legitimized the family by offering his own myth of the “Oedipus complex,” according to which primal sons wrested power from a primal father in order to have sex with a primal mother; Franz Boaz and such prominent students as Margaret Mead believed they could debunk the family by trying to show that marital institutions and sexual customs, so far from being natural and universal, were very different in non-Western societies.

The accounts in Genesis, Engels, Freud, and Mead have one feature in common: They are all aetiological myths designed to explain human nature. None of them can be substantiated by scientific evidence, though one of them--the anthropological myth of Boas and Mead—has been refuted by cross-cultural anthropological studies that reveal the existence of common patterns of human social life.

Among all these mythical tales, the story in Genesis has several claims on the loyalty even of those who are neither Christians nor Jews: Almost everyone in the West knows it, and it is paralleled by similar stories in many other cultures. More significantly, the account of Adam and Eve is a serious attempt to grapple with the reality that men and women often find they cannot be as good as they think they should be. Evil exists and not just in other people whom we dislike. Adam naturally blamed Eve for getting them kicked out of the Garden, but they left together and, until Cain killed his brother, they formed a nuclear commonwealth that sustained and defended itself. Driven out of the homestead, Cain despaired: As a fugitive he knows, “Everyone will slay me.” Outside the protective circle of the family, Cain will face Hobbes’s war of all against all.

Not all attacks upon the family are as bold as the frontal assaults launched by the master theorists of political and social revolution. The founders of classical liberalism also took a dim view of the family’s broader responsibilities. Liberals, in emphasizing the liberated individual and his right to pursue his own destiny, have generally been less than supportive of the peculiar legal status of marriage and family and favored liberalized divorce and inheritance laws as well as the economic and political liberation of married women. They were not explicitly opposed to the family per se any more than they generally admitted that they were opposed to Christianity per se. Their object, so they claimed, was merely to liberate individuals from the shackles imposed by religious fanaticism and patriarchal authority.

I am using “liberal” in the traditional (or “classical”) sense to refer to writers, parties, and movements that emphasized individual liberty and the free market at the expense of tradition, inherited privilege, and established religion. In Britain, the godfather of liberalism is John Locke, and his spiritual heirs (among whom there are, admittedly, many important differences) include Adam Smith, Tom Paine, William Godwin, and John Stuart Mill. In America today, the great liberals are the advocates of free markets and free trade who describe themselves as libertarians, when they tend toward anarchism, and conservatives, when they speak on behalf of those who are determined to hold onto their great wealth and influence, no matter how it was acquired and no matter what the cost to others.

John Locke’s entire political theory was grounded in his opposition to the patriarchal view of government advocated by Sir Robert Filmer and other advocates of monarchical rights. While Filmer traced the origin of sovereign authority back through the power held by biblical patriarchs over their extended families and ultimately to Adam, Locke set aside all such traditions and adopted the theory of the Social Contract. Although there are many variations on contract theory, they usually say, generally, that men originally lived in a state of nature, without either law or order.  Political authority, private property, and even social institutions such as marriage came into existence as the result of an agreement or contract, made by early men who were tired of the inconveniences of uncivil society. Though Locke did not directly attack the family itself, he did advocate the right of divorce, once children were grown, and the implications of his thought, logically working their way out across the centuries, have been to regard the family as a useful, though not essential social institution.


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

6 Responses

  1. JD Salyer says:

    A former Abbeville scholar named Dean Davenport had some very interesting things to say about Filmer v. Locke in his fascinating book “Patriarchy and Politics.” According to Davenport, Locke grasped that ordinary Englishmen might not be naturally inclined to his position, so he not only concealed the anti-patriarchal implications of his theory but disingenuously and superficially appropriated elements of Filmer’s — while simultaneously misrepresenting Filmer as a crypto-Hobbesian. If I understand him, Davenport believes that modern feminism can be best understood as the story of intellectually honest leftists pointing out the glaring internal contradictions of Locke’s position.

    Of course Davenport’s book is only a dissertation, but it’s a mighty compelling read for all that.

  2. S. R. Cundiff says:

    Just for my information: Could the ancient Spartans be considered enemies of the family?

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Happy birthday, di nuovo. If you accept a certain line of reasoning about the Spartans, that they had a totalitarian state, then the answer would be yes. I think, however, that is wrong, though it was certainly the view of Viktor Ehrenburg. One can certainly distinguish between early Sparta, a succesful and military-based Dorian state, from the later version that came out of the so-called Lycourgan reforms. However, if we consider the Spartans we learn of in Herodotus, we find a Spartan king about 500, meeting ambassadors with his little girl, who warns him not to trust the Ionian strangers who are trying to bribe him. Such father-daughter closeness in a matter of stet would be unheard of in Athens. The training for boys was, admitedly, eccentric to the point of bizarre from a mainstream Greek point of view, but we know of affectionate husbands and fathers in the 5th and 4th centuries. We also know that many Athenians, and not just Plato, admired the Spartan way of life and the Spartan character. My conclusion is that they have been given a raw deal. Perhaps neither of us would want to have lived there, but remember, what can be done collectively in a small town of a few thousand citizens is quite different from what can be imposed by a modern state. Some historians have argued–and I think quite correctly–that Sparta was more republican and to some extent democratic than any polis in the Greek world. Of course, citizenship was quite limited, but where else were the citizens referred to as equals?

  4. Robert says:

    One reason we embrace Engels version of marriage today instead of Augustine’s version is because of our reckless use of categories . Anyone who knows Plato s understanding of marriage should read Augustines treatise on Christian marriage as a comparison. But Augustine is a Platonist. No wonder we can no longer differentiate between a variety of cultures and only one civilization.

  5. Nenad Radulovich says:

    Outstanding. Thank you, Dr. Fleming.

  6. Sid Cundiff says:

    Thank you, Dr. Fleming both for the birthday greeting and your information about Sparta.